Inside the world of royal superfans... and toxic trolls

·14-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

“I still can’t believe she’s gone,” a pained voice says. I turn to see a heavily tattooed teenager in head-to-toe black, her blonde hair streaked pink and blue, pulled into Harley Quinn bunches. Her friend, also in black, with kohl-lined eyes, murmurs in agreement. “It’s awful,” she says. “She was so special.” Behind us, a crowd gathers. They whisper respects as the rain drizzles on.

But this isn’t that fateful day of 31 August 1997 – it is the summer of 2021 and almost 25 years have passed since Princess Diana tragically died in a car accident.

I’m peering through a protective hedge surrounding a new memorial statue, in the Kensington Palace grounds, on the first day it’s open to the public. Those who are here today queued, in the damp, because their passion for the royals is deep-rooted and very present. It’s a mix of senior citizens, families, and women like ‘Harley Quinn’ and her friend. Each generation with a different perspective on why they loved Princess Diana, ranging from those who remember her well, to those on whom she made her mark, despite being born years after her death.

So in a TikTok world, where our desire for ‘newness’ reigns supreme, is there still room for a steeped-in-tradition monarchy? And if yes, how does it manifest – and what does it say about us as a society?

It seems we’ve hit peak royal obsession. Back in March, Meghan and Harry’s tell-all Oprah interview, broadcast in 60 countries, pulled in 61 million viewers during its first airing (with 11.3 million from the UK). Last year, Netflix revealed over 73 million households worldwide have devoured the semi-factual (and highly dramatized) series The Crown and Finding Freedom, an allegedly unauthorised book about the Sussexes exiting royal life, became an instant best-seller. Prince Harry’s upcoming memoir will no doubt score similar sales, too.

But while the majority of us are only interested in the royal family and their happenings in a water-cooler way (who doesn’t love a tiara and a shock departure?), there are others for whom the royal love runs deep. Really deep, actually.

Photo credit: Katie Wilde/Getty
Photo credit: Katie Wilde/Getty

One popular royal-focussed Reddit thread has grown by 155% over the last year and now has over 13,000 people – daily – dissecting everything from which family member they think is most academically gifted, to the Queen’s handbags. There are also copious fan accounts (with bios like ‘Keep calm and Cambridge on’ in reference to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) thriving on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, with follower counts often reaching six figures.

And in recent months, some of those accounts have started contacting me. You see, in my role at Cosmopolitan, I often cover royal-related news… and superfans certainly aren’t afraid to let me know their thoughts. Once, when I detailed a 1960s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the royals – which the family have since tried to distance themselves from – the story contained a minor typo and a fan tweeted saying I was a ‘sloppy’ disgrace to journalism and that I should be sacked. At first, it stung. Then I laughed. Then, I was curious.

A ROYALLY GOOD TIME

Bleary-eyed from jet lag, Olivia spent her first day in London taking in royal hot spots – she had just moved from Sydney to work in a slick London PR firm. Since that day, the 30-year-old has been to Buckingham Palace an estimated fifty times. “I love the tradition, it’s so different to my own life,” she explains over Zoom. Olivia, who could easily be in my friendship group, tells me of her particular soft spot for The Queen (“She reminds me of my grandma”) and Kate Middleton (“personable and always immaculately put together”).

Her persistent Buckingham Palace visits have paid off, too. “I once saw the Queen leaving with her corgis,” she tells me excitedly. “My mum visited from Australia and I said ‘Well, obviously we have to see the Palace on your first day’. As we approached, the guards were stopping people outside the gates. When I realised it was because the Queen was leaving in her car, I actually burst out crying.”

Olivia has also been lucky enough to spot Kate Middleton in the wild (albeit unplanned), as she was leaving a train station. “She was sat in the back of a car wearing a green dress. I was jumping up and down, screaming and waving. It still gives me the giggles when I think about it.” For Olivia, the royals are a happy source of fascination and a fun way to pass the time.

For fellow superfan Nicola, 36, a charity comms manager from Devon (who asked for her surname to be omitted as she’s currently petitioning a certain royal to collaborate with her on a work project), her obsession began after attending the Queen Mother’s funeral as a teenager.

“A friend was in the King’s Troop. He rode one of the horses pulling the gun carriage with the coffin on the back,” she explains. “On the day, I remember watching the procession and being in awe. Although it was a sad day, I loved the pomp and ceremony – only the British and our Royal Family can put on an event of that scale. It makes you proud.”

Almost twenty years on, Nicola now has royal news Google Alerts set up, so she never misses a thing. “The Queen is the ultimate leader who’s always there for us,” she adds, explaining she’ll read each story repeatedly, across different titles, to compare angles. “In my eyes, she invented girl power long before the Spice Girls. The thought of anything happening to her will be the saddest day.”

Like many other superfans, Nicola agrees that the royals’ preferred PR tactic of sharing minimal details about their personal lives, interspersed with being frequently visible as they carry out public duties, is part of what keeps the world hooked. It’s an intoxicating combination, leaving the public open to projecting their own ideas into the narrative.

“We all grew up watching Cinderella, and I think William and Kate’s relationship is a big part of what keeps so many people on side and interested today,” she observes. “We’ve been taken on the journey with them, from seeing their engagement photos to the wedding, to their babies. They tread that fine line of maintaining privacy but letting the public in just enough.”

Psychologist Jan P De Jonge, founder of People Business Psychology, says our brains can even get a happy buzz from engaging with royal ‘content’. “When people get locked into following and researching their favourite celebrities or royals, an addictive dynamic is at play,” he explains. “Thousands of years ago, we would’ve observed and learnt from more experienced fellow hunters in the fight for our survival. That long-ingrained habit of watching others [who command] respect and admiration, mixed with prestige and status, is still within us.”

We worship those with whom we associate these feelings, he says, feelings that can trigger dopamine (a hormone which gives us a sensation of need and desire). “In this instance, the desire is for status, luxury, respect and admiration.”

I can see how easy it is to get drawn into the soap opera-like nature of it all (to be honest, in recent years the royals have become my own favourite reality show), especially when The Crown is out there pouring petrol onto the flames of gossip and embers of interest. But the more I scratch at the surface of online royal fandoms, the clearer it becomes that this passion can easily spill over into something darker than corgi-spotting. It’s apparent that we also sadistically relish seeing our heroes, or those in privileged positions, fail and fall from their pedestals.

Nicola describes the Oprah interview – which lifted the veil and divided opinions – as a ‘posh version of The Jeremy Kyle Show.’ If that’s the case, and we say we’ve learned our lesson when it comes to the impact reality TV has on its stars and their mental health, where do the new swathe of young royals and their families fit into that?

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

THE (ONLINE) WAR OF ROSES

“She can go swivel,” reads the tweet, along with a middle finger emoji. It was posted by semi-anonymous blogger ‘Murky Meg’ – I say semi-anonymous, as although her real name isn’t shared, she uses a photograph of (presumably) her real face online. Murky’s flipping-the-bird tweet was in response to a tabloid story (‘Meghan was ‘hoping for an apology’ after Oprah interview, says royal expert’) – and is one of many. There are over 29,000 tweets, to be exact. She’s also just one of many with an account of that nature.

Murky’s frequent updates about the Sussexes, none of them especially flattering, now have a captivated audience of over 117,000 across various social platforms. She exists, it seems, to find flaws in everything they say and do, and after getting stuck into her content, it’s hard not to absorb some of her rage – and points. So much so that I find myself entering an online research spiral and emerging feeling dazed.

Equally, many of Murky’s other posts seem quite obviously far-fetched, or are based solely on anonymous tip-offs or ‘experts’ (something anyone can easily claim to be online).

She’s questioned whether or not Meghan faked her pregnancies with a strap-on bump (citing ‘an experienced gynaecologist’ in the process), and if she and Harry used IVF, implying that the alleged private medical matter ought to be public knowledge if so. Murky’s Instagram bio reads ‘If you’re a fan of Harry and Meghan this might not be the place for you. Come find me on YouTube!’. She did not respond to my interview request.

And this view – that the Sussexes are hell-bent on destroying the monarchy and that the ‘truth’ about them, or Meghan in particular, must out – is at the heart of the division among the more extreme parts of the royal superfan community.

On the one hand, there are a staggering amount of ‘Team Cambridge’ accounts out there, loudly devoted to defending William and Kate (and other working royals) from any unflattering stories or accusations, and reminding the world that
they’re patrons of important causes
.

They praise the Duke and Duchess’s Royal Foundation, which does everything from encouraging discussions on mental health through sport, to supporting frontline workers. They say Meghan and Harry have turned their back on the royal family, slate them for publicly airing private grievances and criticise them for stating they want a quieter life, while continuing to make regular public appearances.

Then, on the flipside, you have the ‘Sussex Squad’, for whom Meghan and Harry have understandably become viewed as brave whistle-blowers of a broken system, who powerfully represent the causes they care about, like the Black Lives Matter movement, feminism and anti-bullying online.

They often accuse those on the opposing side, who say they do not like Meghan, of point-blank racism. The mere idea of baby Lilibet, a child whom nobody has ever seen a picture of, is enough to make The Squad swoon – and to mark Meghan’s 40th birthday, some members even fundraised over £40,000 for charity.

To learn more about this virtual war, I decided to speak to somebody who has remained neutral throughout. I call Kristie, a 27-year-old living in south-west Germany. She sweetly asks how I am after a recent Covid diagnosis, then proudly tells me she’s one of Prince Charles and Camilla the Duchess of Cornwall’s biggest supporters – with a fan account to prove it. She even got together with her girlfriend, Tanja (known as ‘Camilla’s Girl’ online), after bonding over their shared love.

Kristie and Tanja met their favourite couple during their tour of Germany in 2019, too, after being singled out of the crowd. “Camilla waved to Charles and said ‘Come here! I want you to meet my husband’,” Kristie recalls. “I thought I was going to die, but they really put us at ease.” Together, Kristie and Tanja are committed to defending the couple from online haters, while refusing to insult others along the way.

“I want to show them that there are nice people out there, especially after The Crown aired and they had to mute the comments on their page,” Kristie explains, adding that she most admires Camilla’s work with women who’ve been sexually assaulted, after a good friend sadly had a similar experience, and Prince Charles' long-standing youth charity, The Prince's Trust.

Photo credit: Katie Wilde/Getty
Photo credit: Katie Wilde/Getty

“What makes me most uncomfortable about all the online abuse they receive is that, I think, many responsible for it are teenagers, who didn’t live through the Diana era and know nothing about Charles and Camilla,” she adds. “I can’t understand why people feel the need to attack and insult others. If you don't like them, why not just scroll by?”

And, like Charles and Camilla, Kristie has been plagued by online trolls too. Three years ago, she spent endless hours posting images of the couple on an Instagram account that amassed over 20,000 followers. However, this year, the day after Princess Diana’s birthday, as I was standing by the statue, Kristie attempted to log on as usual – and found her account had been closed. “Diana trolls,” she says plainly, when I ask why. “They mass reported it.”

Kristie describes the loss of her account as “a tough time” and said she’d worked hard to carve out a “lovely, hate-free” community online. Luckily, many have supported her newer venture (@from.birkhall.with.love, named after Charles and Camilla’s Scottish residence) and this year, Kristie and Tanja happily hosted a virtual – drama-free – birthday celebration, in honour of Camilla.

After only dipping a toe into royal fandoms, I quickly found myself getting worked up too. I sat glued to my phone until gone 2am, desperate to know if Meghan really is the ‘evil genius narcissist’ that some paint her as in these not-even-underground forums. If The Queen is really a lizard. If, if, if…

In our age of misinformation, virtue signalling and echo chambers (a deadly combination), it’s easy to want to pick a side – Sussexes or royals – that could act as shorthand for your own values (or evidence of you being able to ‘see the truth’), then defend it to the death. Which is wild, because none of us will ever truly know what goes on behind closed palace doors.

We may hear one side from Harry in his upcoming memoir, but the truth is nuanced, or as the saying goes, is comprised of three parts: yours, theirs and what actually happened. Yet, it’s fascinating that so many fans – and trolls – dedicate large quantities of time and energy, of which we all have but a limited amount, on trying to decipher what, in reality, doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to their own lives. Or at least shouldn't.

However, that need to weigh in on the royals, and analyse their every move, clearly does impact their lives – and mental health. Regardless of your views on the monarchy, or whatever ‘team’ you may be on, surely everyone deserves to be treated like a human being, rather than a caricature or stereotype?

And who knows, as much as we say we’d like to live the ‘fairy tale’ that surrounds a royal life of riches, perhaps they’d rather be anonymous tourists, standing by a statue on a rainy afternoon instead? Perhaps.

This article was originally published in the October/November issue of Cosmopolitan UK. Since the time of writing, Murky Meg and some of the other hate accounts on Twitter targeting the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been removed or suspended following an investigation.

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